Advertising and political campaigning are both about psychological manipulation. Persuading your target market - whether directly or indirectly - to purchase a product or support a candidate can be either a subliminal mindfuck or as blatant as hitting them over the head with a sledgehammer.
Political candidates pump millions into research firms and spinmasters to develop ads for their campaigns. Most of the techniques used are as sinister as Soviet-era brainwashing experiments.
Through the ads, the voters aren’t informed, nor do they view the issues or candidates with clear, naïve eyes. The voters are treated like Pavlovian dogs waiting to salivate at the next bell.
These ads don’t outline a candidate’s positions or qualifications: they’re a kick-you-in-the-balls grudgefest and a schoolyard fight complete with hair-pulling and Indian burns. Most brilliantly, the ads do it with an absolute certainty that the candidate speaking to the voters is an omnipotent Titan with total competence and infallibility.
It’s all bullshit, of course, meant to fluster or aggravate the viewers, who, reaching for their fourth can of Budwiser, yell at the screen and curse the goddamn liberals or goddamn Republicans.
Televised political ads are the ultimate manipulators: stealthily-crafted miniature dramas of good versus evil, right conquering wrong or dire portents of dread on the horizon. The ads use various techniques to communicate their messages, and these subtle techniques play on the viewer’s sense of outrage or uncomfortable cultural biases or primal fears.
Take the GOP ad criticizing attacks on Sarah Palin. The ad cites an article in the Sept. 9 issue of The Wall Street Journal that says Obama “…air-dropped an army of 30 lawyers, investigators and opposition researchers” in Alaska to dig up dirt on Palin. The screen shows a pack of wolves, open-jawed and bearing sharp fangs.
While I’d be the first to lump lawyers with wolves, I think the sudden appearance of the wolves in the ad was purposefully jarring, especially coupled with the low, threatening music in the background.
The Bush/Cheney campaign in 2004 used a similar ad, portraying a dark forest and stalking wolves. The ad plays on primal fears of the forest and the wolves, reducing everything to symbolism and archetypes, which for Bush and Cheney, worked. The ad was about the threat of terrorism and Bush would save America from the dangerous threats lurking in the darkness.
Fear is a big theme of political ads. Draw the curtains, turn out the lights and give them a good, old-fashioned scaring. Make the voters afraid of something, of someone, of some idea or concept. A black candidate with an Islamic name? A woman governor with a light resume on foreign issues? Gay marriage? Religious fundamentalists? The list goes on and on.
Another theme is absolute distortion; taking a partial truth or omitting certain details or facts.
A McCain ad chastises Joe Biden’s remark that it would be a patriotic act for richer Americans to pay more taxes. Except in the ad, it didn’t mention “richer Americans” like Biden said, but all Americans: “Joe Biden calls paying higher taxes a patriotic act,” the announcer says. “Obama and Biden voted to raise taxes on working Americans making just $42,000 a year.”
So the ad went from Biden calling on wealthier Americans to pay more taxes to him wanting everyone to cough up more dough for Uncle Sam. The GOP is telling us through the ad, subtly, that if Obama and Biden get elected, we’ll all be living in cardboard Hoovervilles by 2010. In reality, Obama is saying he’ll cut taxes for middle class Americans, not making them pay more.
An Obama ad goes after McCain for not knowing how many houses he owns: “When asked how many houses he owns, McCain lost track. He couldn’t remember.” The ad shows slow-motion video of McCain talking, making it look like he has peanut butter stuck to the roof of his mouth. A doleful piano sounds in the background. While meant to provoke outrage and disbelief that the old fogy doesn’t know how much real estate he has, you can’t end up but feeling sad. If you reach 72, could you even find your way home?
There are ads I call “cinematic,” with high production values including sweeping musical scores and dramatic elements. Take the Obama ad that came out before the Iowa Caucus where he’s speaking to a crowd, telling them it is a defining moment in America’s history. “Our nation is at war. The planet is in peril. The dream that so many generations fought for feels that it is slowly slipping away.” The Aaron Sorkin-like ad shows Obama on stage looking presidential, then cuts to concerned middle aged white people in the audience. The ad ends with uplifting quotes about Obama from the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Time Magazine, the Concord Monitor and Newsweek.
Cedar Rapids Gazette? Wouldn’t you lead with the quotes from Time magazine or Newsweek?
Another cinematic, emotional tug-at-your-heartstrings ad for McCain describes his time as a POW in Vietnam, showing footage of him lying in a Hanoi hospital. Cut to McCain and Ronald Reagan together while swelling orchestra music plays and an announcer says “As a prisoner of war, John McCain was inspired by Ronald Reagan.” McCain’s voice over: “I enlisted as a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.”
The ad later shows a split-screen, with McCain talking at a podium on one side and a montage of still images of American troops in Iraq. The announcer continues: “The leadership and experience to call for the surge strategy in Iraq that is working.”
Linking images of McCain with the current troops is like saying McCain is supporting the troops. Saying the surge is working is detracting from critics of the surge. We proclaim it, so it must be so. The ad combines a lot of strong, positive elements of warriors and Reagan, which appeals to the Republican base.
Repetition is another form of conditioning. An Obama ad blasts McCain on the economy. McCain made a statement on Sept. 15, “Our economy, I think, still, the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” The ad plays the McCain clip, then flashes the question: “The Fundamentals of Our Economy Are Strong?” as a jab, before playing the McCain clip again. And again, just in case you didn’t get it the first time.
One of the most notorious ads thus far was McCain’s “Celebrity” ad, attacking Obama for his so-called celebrity status and popularity with the media.
The ad begins with a long-shot of a crowd in Berlin. Obama makes his way to a stage accompanied by the sound of a clicking camera shutter. Still images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton flash on the screen. The female announcer says: “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world. But is he ready to lead?”
The ad subliminally or unintentionally shows the Berlin Victory Column and the Washington Monument, two phallic symbols. Now I’m not into Freudian theories, but who show these two cock symbols coupled with images of Britney and Paris? Read into that what you will, but an ad showing a crowd of supporters cheering “Obama”, depicting two powerful phallic symbols and pretty girls isn’t that bad. In fact, it could work for Obama. The Republicans want to make it look like Obama is a hotdog, a flash-in-the-pan bubbleheaded celebrity. Yet the ad shows he’s charismatic, attracting an audience, and pretty girls ad sex appeal and the phallic symbols as virility and strength. Taken on a subliminal level, if you turned the sound off and saw just the beginning of the ad, it would be like something Obama’s camp approved.
Comparing the candidate with something unpopular is another tack: the old guilt by association trick. Consider this McCain ad that links Obama to high gas prices. A woman’s voice, like someone’s disappointed mother, says: “Gas prices, $4, $5, no end in sight, because some in Washington are still saying no to drilling in America. No to independence for foreign oil. Who can you thank for rising prices at the pump?” Then an image of Obama floats next to an image of a gas pump. Is Obama to blame for high gas prices? No, but according to the ad he is.
On the opposite end, Obama’s camp is running an ad featuring images of McCain and President Bush, linking the unpopular president with the Republican candidate. A jaunty, Danny Elfman-esque score is playing while the announcer says: “They share the same out of touch attitude, the same failure to understand the economy, the same tax cuts for huge corporations and the wealthiest 1 percent, the same plan to spend $10 billion a month in Iraq when we should be rebuilding America.” Then the zinger: a clip of McCain stating he voted with Bush over 90 percent of the time.
Whether these ads actually work is another matter. For now, millions are poured into both campaigns to streamline and define the brand and to develop marketing strategies for the Republicans and Democrats. Who ultimately prevails in the presidential ad war of 2008 will be decided November 4.
Or, if it’s like 2000, sometime in December.